Perhaps, like me, you reacted to the news that Phoebe-Waller Bridge, the force behind BBC Three breakout hit Fleabag, has a new slick crime drama coming to UK screens later this year with delight.
So perhaps you, too, feel somewhat betrayed by the news that Killing Eve, starring Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, began airing in the US on BBC America this Sunday – while over in the UK, we’re still waiting on an official release date that is at least months away.
But before you hastily start joining “Britain First” Facebook groups (no, that’s not what that means) – there is an explanation.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge feels like a BBC “discovery”. Later picked up by Amazon, which brought it to worldwide and, crucially, American audiences, Fleabag was originally commissioned by Damian Kavanagh for BBC Three, and Shane Allen and Chris Sussman for BBC Comedy, after Sussman (now head of BBC Comedy) saw the original stage version of the show at the Edinburgh Fringe.
The commission was part of BBC Three’s commitment to new British comedy – or the channel’s “Make Me Laugh” editorial pillar – which came into being when the channel became online-only. This is how many BBC comedies were born: from People Just Do Nothing to This Country to The Young Offenders. The channel has successfully recommissioned Fleabag – series two comes to BBC Three in 2019.
So it’s easy to assume that 8-part series Killing Eve, which airs on BBC Three and BBC One later this year, is a similar kind of commission – especially as the show is a British production, based on a series of British books by Luke Jennings, following a London-based MI5 agent.
But Killing Eve is an original BBC America commission, made by production company Sid Gentle Films (BBC Worldwide holds a majority stake in the company, which is known for SS-GB and The Durrells). BBC America is a US cable channel that forms part of the BBC’s commercial arm (joint owned by AMC Networks and BBC Studios, established to supplement licence-fee income by producing and distributing programmes alongside third-party independent companies).
BBC One and BBC Three have simply acquired the show, in the same way that Amazon bought the rights to show Fleabag on its Instant Video service after the BBC. In the words of the UK PR team handling Killing Eve: “The show is entirely a BBC America commission.”
Sally Woodward Gentle, Executive Producer and MD of Sid Gentle Films Ltd said, “This project originally started when we, Sid Gentle Films, were shown the Luke Jennings novellas. We really loved their particular tone and how they featured two strong women at the centre. I approached Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose play I had recently read, because I thought her spin on this familiar genre would give it something brand new. We then developed the Killing Eve script and when we showed it to BBC America it was clear that they loved it for all the same reasons we did; it’s attitude, tone and female-centric nature. We all strongly felt it was a project that just had to be made and so we did!”
The programme is currently expected to come to the UK this autumn. It will air on BBC One in a traditional linear run in prime-time slot, while becoming simultaneously available to watch online as a full series “box set” on BBC Three.
So the acquisition is highly unusual – but in the opposite sense to what you might assume. Handled by distributors Endeavor Content, it is notable as it gives airing rights to both channels (BBC One and BBC Three). It’s also the first US scripted show acquired by BBC Three since the channel became web-only in 2016, as well as a rare acquisition for BBC One, which hasn’t picked up an American scripted series in years (international acquisitions are usually confined to BBC Two and BBC Four).
But if BBC Studios – which was only officially established as a commercially entity in 2017, and this month merged with BBC Worldwide – continues to invest in original programming as a belt and braces approach to supplementing licence fees, it could be a type of deal we’ll see much more of in the future.